Wash. smokers hit in pocketbook by tax increase
By ROB CARSON
THE NEWS TRIBUNE
TACOMA, Wash. -- The recession and the biggest federal cigarette tax increase in history - a 62-cents-a-pack hike April 1 - have sent Washington smokers scrambling for ways to quit.
Analysts expect the higher prices to drive cigarette consumption down by about 6.25 percent, leading to an estimated $20.9 million loss in state tax revenue and tobacco settlement money.
The price hike already has caused a boom in the stop-smoking business, and for families of smokers struggling to quit, has increased tension already stretched by the economic slump.
The federal cigarette tax rose to $1.01 a pack April 1, but many manufacturers raised prices in March in response to an expected loss in sales. A pack of premium cigarettes in Washington now costs at least $7, which adds up to more than $2,500 a year for pack-a-day smokers.
In addition to paying the federal tax, Washington's 800,000 smokers face state taxes of $2.025 a pack, the fifth-highest rate in the country after New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Yvonne Russell is one of the smokers driven to quit by the federal tax hike.
"As soon as I found out prices were increasing again, I said, 'No more,' " fumed Russell, 35, a smoker since she was 18. "It's just getting ridiculous."
Russell has three children and takes care of a disabled aunt at her home near the Tacoma Mall. Her husband is a carpenter who feels lucky not to have lost his job in the economic downturn.
Russell said she tried to quit smoking two years ago, the last time the price jumped. Then her resolve slipped and she started up again. The latest tax increase was the last straw, she said.
"It's like, we can either eat, or smoke," Russell said. "What's it going to be?"
For thousands of Washington residents, the answer is to stop smoking.
Managers of the state-sponsored Tobacco Quit Line said calls are running 243 percent higher in April than they were a year ago. The program connects smokers with "quit coaches" and offers at least a two-week supply of nicotine patches or gum (valued at $145) at no charge.
"We've had tremendous volume," said Mary Kate Salley, senior vice president of the Seattle-based company, Free & Clear, which manages the Quit Line.
Last year, in the first three weeks of April, 1,231 people called the Quit Line, Salley said. In the same period this year, the number went up to 4,221.
Business is booming so much that Free & Clear is rapidly increasing its staff, even in the midst of the worst recession in decades, Salley said.
"We've increased staffing by about 29 percent," she said. "We've hired 39 quit coaches and 30 registration intake specialists."
Enrollment in smoking-cessation classes in the state has shown similar increases in the past month.
"We've had a flood of calls from people wanting to quit," said Michael Foley, a spokesman for Group Health Cooperative, which runs stop-smoking clinics in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia.
"The highest volume of inquiries for assistance in quitting smoking is usually right after New Year's Day," Foley said, "but we had 600 people inquire in March, which equals January's volume."
REACHING THE THRESHOLD
"There's a certain number of smokers who will give up many other things in life because of their addiction," said Dr. Patrick Hogan, a Tacoma neurologist who has been working with addicted smokers since the 1980s.
"But there's a certain point where there's a threshold on price, and I think we're getting close to it thank goodness."
Hogan started the Freedom From Tobacco Program at Tacoma's St. Joseph Hospital in 1992 and has been volunteering his time there nearly every week since. The weekly support sessions are free and open to all.
Lately, Hogan said, he's been hearing a consistent refrain at the sessions, where attendance has increased from a half dozen or so in the early years to as many as 50.
"People are saying, 'I've finally gotten to the point where I don't want to give away money that I don't need to give away," Hogan said. "Maybe a year ago they still would have adapted one more time, but with the recession, cost is just that extra motivator. They say, 'Here's one tax that I can avoid.'"
That's the way it worked for Paul and Gretchen Stewart, who recently started attending a Group Health smokers' support group in Tacoma. They were two-pack-a-day smokers until the most recent price increase convinced them to quit.
"I went into a gas station to buy a pack of Marlboros, and it was $7.95," Gretchen Stewart said. "I told the woman, 'I can't believe I'm paying that for cigarettes.' That's when I quit. I haven't bought a pack since."
If they hadn't quit, the Stewarts figure they would have been spending $900 a month on cigarettes. That's money they can no longer afford. They own their own painting company, and the recession has cut deeply into their income.
"We went from a good four or five jobs a month to almost nothing," Gretchen Stewart said. "When people are wanting to save money, the last thing they want to do is paint their house."
Trying to quit has been excruciating, Gretchen Stewart said.
"I've been smoking for 34 years since I was 12 so it's very hard," she said. "I was in the hospital in December with pneumonia. I couldn't breathe, but I still wanted a cigarette. I've been pregnant three times and smoked all through all three of them. If you can't even quit for a child of yours, it's bad."
Still, Stewart said she doesn't think raising taxes is a good way to get people to stop smoking.
"I think it's cruel," she said. "You're taxing the things people have for enjoyment. People should have the right to make their own decision instead of taxing the hell out of it."
Doing without cigarettes means extra stress, and that can upset family relationships.
Gretchen Stewart said she and her husband tried to quit at the same time two years ago and they finally had to start smoking again to save their marriage.
"We got in a huge fight," she said. "We were on I-5 and I told him to make a right or a left, I don't know what it was, but we were just screaming at each other. We don't usually behave that way.
"I'm looking around saying, 'Where's the cigarette?'"
ASSESSING THE IMPACT
Assessing the financial impact of the decline in cigarette sales depends on how you do the arithmetic.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the federal tobacco tax increase will prompt 14,800 Washington adults to quit smoking. At a pack a day, the national average for smokers, that's about $10 million a year in lost tax revenue.
The campaign also estimates the increase will prevent 30,400 kids from becoming adult smokers, which will further reduce the revenue stream.
And fewer smokers means less money from the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement. Washington gets annual payments as part of the agreement in which the states settled lawsuits against the nation's major tobacco companies to recover tobacco-related health care costs.
This year, Washington's share was about $174 million, according to Cameron Comfort, the senior assistant attorney general who advises state policy makers on financial aspects of the settlement.
If the new federal tax cuts the number of Washington smokers by 6.25 percent, as analysts project, that will mean the state will collect about $10.9 million less money from the fund.
On the other hand, the state will save on certain medical costs.
The federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that cigarette smoking is responsible for $193 billion in annual health-related economic losses in the United States.
However, smokers tend to die earlier. The more people who die prematurely from smoking, the less the state has to contribute to expensive elder-care. According to the state Department of Health, about 7,500 people in Washington die every year from tobacco-related diseases.
PAIN IN THE POCKETBOOK
Heidi Henson, co-chairwoman of the tobacco advisory board of Pierce County, said she's not surprised a rush to quit smoking coincided with the federal tax hike.
"Price always has an significant impact," she said. "It's the single most effective way to cut use there is."
Other antismoking efforts are effective, too, Henson said, including restrictions on where smokers can light up, general psychological messages that put smoking in a negative light and emphasizing health effects.
"The harder it is for people to use tobacco, whether it's because of price or location or social pressure, the more likely they are to consider quitting," Henson said.
"If they get dirty looks when they smoke or people make them feel like second-class citizens, it's not easy for them."
But Henson and Salley agree nothing works as well as increasing prices.
"When they get hit in the pocket book, that's when people tend to said, 'OK, that's enough,'" Salley said.